Chapter 15

 

Skaters Away

in which Mr. Wood develops his tastes.

Mr. Wood loved figure skaters.

On the May morning he moved into the Castle, Mr. Wood programmed his six satellite dishes to find and record any broadcasts anywhere in the world of that graceful winter sport. Ice-rink events funneled out of the sky from Japan and Norway and Steamboat Springs. Unlike Alabama, those distant places always seemed to have snow and cold.

Mr. Wood liked to stop the skaters with the remote control. He could play God at the top of a quadruple spin, or a flying camel, or midway through a lift. He could stop time itself. He could make the little figures on his screen skate faster, or backwards. If they tumbled to the hard ice and lay still and stunned, he could make them leap up again, like rag dolls, then fly away in reverse like the fall never happened, like they would never fall at all.

Mr. Wood glanced away from the TV screen and at his Rolex.

His police department and his fire department, Neeley and Wragg, would arrive in twenty minutes.

Mr. Wood noticed the softly blurred features of his own big face reflected in the brilliantly finished surface of his desk. It bemused him to see he looked something like a jack-o’-lantern.

He grew thoughtful.

Early on, he learned what he learned. He grew up an only child in a modest, middle-class home. (The rampant rumors that he’d inherited his wealth came from spiteful, jealous types.) Mr. Wood always held the special pride that comes with being a self-made man. He simply turned out to be better than other people at doing one important thing — making money. He did it mostly by working harder. He never allowed even the most astronomical possibility of failure to claim his mind. He could… and he would… outcompete anybody.

His parents doted on him.

“He’ll be a fighter pilot one day,” his dad always bragged to teachers on parent night at every level of school — elementary, junior high, and even during the first troubled years away, at that special school. The fact that young Mr. Wood had no intention of being a fighter pilot, that back then in fact he hated airplanes and flying and anything military, did not seem to discourage his father’s ambitions.

Nelson Wood may have been more than a little surprised. His square-set child came out stern, rigid. Military. He looked and acted nothing like his old man, an earnest, yellow-haired enthusiast prone to hacking coughs and flamboyant gestures. The senior Mr. Wood sold brass and reed and percussion instruments to high school bands, then made added money teaching the kids to play. He loved to make potato salad and deviled eggs. He wrote sonnets about the color nature photographs that moved him in the monthly issues of National Geographic.

Nelson Wood went to Pentecostal services, alone, morning and night, every Sunday of the year except Easter, when he unexpectedly disappeared into his room for three days and got too drunk to even make it out to the bathroom. Easter weekend was the only time of the year Mr. Wood saw his father take even a thimbleful of spirits.

But the man took a great many thimblesful starting on Good Friday, and he made a habit of going to bed early that day, just at dark, with tears streaming down his innocent, anguished face.

“Poor, sweet Jesus,” he would sob, disappearing into a lightless storage room with a single bed in back of the family’s modest brick home.

Then, at dawn on Monday morning, rising like Jesus one day late, Nelson Wood reentered the world. Instead of a shroud, he sported a spotless white blazer and a white tie, white shoes, and a pair of black slacks and a black shirt. He tottered off to the music shop only slightly worse for wear, ready with all his might to sell scores and song sheets and big bass drums. From the look of him, nothing at all had happened those past few days.

Not even Easter.

Mr. Wood’s mother, Betty Fay, never complained, never spoke of it. She could only say a few words, anyway. Betty Fay’s own mother had contracted measles during pregnancy, and her daughter came out of the womb deaf. Betty Fay’s vocabulary consisted of “mom” and “pop” and a few other short words with “o” in the middle. She said “om” very well, very often. She spent her adult years in a safe bubble guarded, from every sharp thorn by her bandleader husband and her sober son.

A side-effect of his mother’s affliction meant Mr. Wood learned to talk very much later than other children, and he sometimes stuttered in early years at school. A speech pathologist in Birmingham said the stutter had nothing at all to do with his mother, that the boy had “other emotional problems.” But Nelson Wood didn’t like the specialist… and he especially didn’t like that the specialist charged the family $100 for the hour it took to come up with such a flip diagnosis. Little Mr. Wood had first begun to understand money this way, hearing his father complain about “a little wad of nothing for a big wad of cash.”

And Little Mr. Wood didn’t like the doctor for another reason. Very near the end of their second session, the speech pathologist reached down to touch the boy’s private parts. Little Mr. Wood froze and let him.

The session ended.

A few minutes later, as Nelson Wood and his shame-faced son passed through the office on the way to the car, the youngster abruptly spun around. Fast as a striking snake, he plunged an uncapped red-ink Sheaffer fountain pen into the speech pathologist’s right eye. The pen shattered thick glasses.

Little Mr. Wood was nine years old at the time.

Fifty years had passed, but that incident changed life forever.

Little Mr. Wood pulled a short stretch in reform school. He then put in four years at the military institute at Marion, Alabama. He never went home when he received news from an older cadet that his mother had run off a bridge in a west Alabama rainstorm. He only briefly imagined what it must have been like inside the wallowing car as it sank into a black creek, his mother flailing hands like her husband, the band conductor, but with her eyes and her mouth wide open, OM OM OM.

Little Mr. Wood hated the military. So, he joined it.

He went to Vietnam just when things were starting. He stayed and stayed.

The war in Asia made a man of him. And it made him something else.

Mr. Wood found out he was very good at soldiering. He excelled at basic training, applied for Special Forces. He learned to turn green and disappear in a jungle.

When Mr. Wood thought back on his own Special Forces missions in the Central Highlands, he sneered at the escapades of Dick Wragg, his fire chief.

The Navy SEALs? Kindergarten.

Between deployments, Mr. Wood returned home and learned to parachute at Fort Benning. He developed a taste for being airborne, and he learned from a private instructor how to fly a plane. He mastered solitaire. He studied anatomy on his own, usually late at night. He picked up filthy martial arts skills.

At the height of the Asian conflict, Mr. Wood toured four years in all, most of the time behind enemy lines, long-range reconnaissance. He became one of those hard, daunting fighters with the thousand-yard stare. He learned to use most every weapon of the age, and to employ nearly any object he picked up with deadly force.

Some things happened deep in the jungles of Laos and Cambodia. For months at a time, he hunted alone in green solitary confinement, living off the land.

Mr. Wood developed… unusual tastes.

It took him two months to deplete a Hmong hamlet. When he started, the population had been 13 unlucky men, women, and children.

He tossed their bones to the monkeys.

He finally came back from the jungles and took his military pay and $1,200 dollars inherited from a shoebox some honest neighbors found under Nelson Wood’s bed after that man’s own sad demise. Those neighbors, Elmer and Sam — Elmer was a woman, and Sam was a woman, too — kept the cash under their mattress for years, until Mr. Wood reappeared one day, skinny as a wraith and quiet as his mother.

Mr. Wood bought enough concrete block and mortar mix and plywood decking and pine two-by-fours to construct an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom box a half-mile down the road from the repossessed Wood family home. The unfortunate lot cost less than the lumber and nails — it sat next to a ditch that ran four inches deep with dirty feathers and slurry from Ronny Estes’s chicken processing factory. On a hot summer day, the surface of the creek covered with blow flies and glistened black as tar.

Mr. Wood first meant to live in the new house himself, since the bank had stolen his birthplace. With his own two hands, he exactingly dug ditches and pier holes for the new foundation. He mortared and set the concrete block for the piers, then joined the foundation sills atop those, and he hammered 16-penny nails into floor joists and rat sills and purlings and rafters with a hammer he bought for a dime at a garage sale. He worked long after dark for weeks. He would leave his day job — a 10-hour shift turning wrenches and changing tires at Lathem’s Rambler Repair — to tie on a cheap cloth nail belt, arriving at the job site on a little Yamaha scooter bought with army pay. At top speed, his new ride sounded like a mean mosquito.

Mr. Wood worked deep into the screech owl hours, toiling alone and ghostly in the beam of the motorcycle headlamp.

He would never forget that first house.

Mr. Wood glanced at his Rolex. Again.

He hated watches. He hated time. Every little tick of a clock made him think of loggers chopping a tree. His tree. His life.

He clicked off the big video screen that dominated a wall of his office. The skaters went away into the void.

Chief Neeley and Chief Wragg had ten minutes. They better be on time. Mr. Wood had something planned tonight. It was Friday.

That plan would happen right here on top of this desk.

Ten minutes.

Mr. Wood had lots of nights to think and plan as he nailed together that first house in the summer of 1970.

He remembered a story his mother wrote to him at the military institute. She told how Nelson had fainted in the aisle of the Lafayette Lions football stadium smack in the fourth quarter of a state high school playoff game.

Betty Fay wrote the bare facts, but Mr. Wood could fill in the rest. He always had a quick imagination.

His old man had on his white work tie and black shirt. He toppled over right beside the bleacher section reserved for the band, but the massed ranks of polished instruments he’d personally sold to all those students blew so sweet and strong that nobody noticed him tumble, clutching his temples with both hands. The game ended and the crowd rose to go home before a first soul screamed or cried.

Nelson Wood never was the same after the stroke. On the one-year anniversary of Betty Fay’s accident, he went to sleep in a chair in front of a late-night Robert Preston movie. Slumped, he had his hands clasped in prayer when two high school students showed up for trumpet lessons and found him the next day.

Mr. Wood recalled as he worked those summer nights under the indifferent stars how his deaf mother took movie magazines to the beauty parlor and pointed to the hairdos, nodding her pretty head like a cow, smiling hopefully. Back home again, she ritually rushed through the screen front door — it screeched and spanked shut behind her — and charged to the bathroom, where she attacked her newest hairdo with a brush and made howling sounds like a lost hound. Her efforts at curses. Tears streamed her pretty face.

That summer, as Mr. Wood erected his first little shoebox of a house and wondered about his life, something fateful happened.

The construction was nearly done. He’d tacked down cheap black shingles on the roof and run electrical wire under the floor for sockets and along joists in the attic for overhead room fixtures. Next would come the drywall and the tape and mud and sanding. He dreaded that. Sheetrock finishing could take a man half a week, even on such a small house.

It was a hot August night.

Mr. Wood sat in a framed window opening, one leg dangling. He smoked an unfiltered Camel — in the past weeks, he’d littered the ground under the window with butts smoked all the way down to the finger-burn. (Cigars, too expensive, would become a later indulgence.) A rooster crowed way off in some alien world, confused by a full moon but belligerent as hell. Mr. Wood sometimes wondered if a single defiant fowl had somehow escaped the carnage of the Estes plant and now lived wild and free.

A couple in a rumbling Camaro pulled up.

Mr. Wood eased down from the window frame and cautiously approached the street. Two strangers inside the muscle car offered a greeting. The male was a fellow serviceman, a Marine, retired after 20 years of service. Another Vietnam vet. A scar blazed his cheek. He had a prosthetic eye. His young, pretty wife held a steady a job at the county health clinic, immunizing school children for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus — the DPTs.

To Mr. Wood’s great surprise — the surprise of his life, really — the couple made a little small talk about the weather, then extended an offer, on the spot. They wanted to buy Mr. Wood’s unfinished home. They would pay $3,500 in cash, house as is. It took Mr. Wood about ten seconds to decide.

They shook hands on it, and Mr. Wood tried not to notice how sticky the other man’s hand felt.

Mr. Wood met them the next morning — it was a Thursday — at Beeline Café on the main street in downtown Lafayette. The Marine, good as his word, paid cash on the barrel head. He made his full payment in twenties, touching his thumb to sticky pancake syrup on the edge of his breakfast plate to help him count off the slick new bills.

After one polite cup of coffee, Mr. Wood walked straight to Lafayette Savings and Loan — a bank he would own in a few years, along with Ronny Estes’s chicken processing plant. and the hardware company that sold him his first construction materials. He’d also own every lumberyard and a good number of timber stands in the next 10 counties. He would also own radio stations, and manufacturing plants that made metal storage bins and recreational vehicles and double-wide mobile homes.

And he owned more than that.

Mr. Wood opened his first checking account with the $3,500 cash, and he set up a $10,000 line of credit.

The very next day, he bought all the remaining property along that foul creek, eight tiny, cheap lots alongside the one he’d just sold to the Marine and his wife. He spent another thousand dollars on concrete block and bargain-basement lumber and heavy boxes of nails. He went down to the part of town where black men and alcoholic whites waited to get hired for day work, and he hired the ones who swore they didn’t drink, most of them liars, and he put them to work.

And it began.

In fifteen years, Mr. Wood’s crews had hammered together more than four thousand houses in every part of the South. He also owned a real estate and development operation in Dallas, a material supply operation and an insurance company in Atlanta, and an import/export business in Miami. Media in Connecticut. A casino in the Bahamas, too.

And he owned more than that.

In seven more years, Mr. Wood could have bought most of the land under any one of the South’s biggest cities.

His pattern never varied. Mr. Wood first purchased land and buildings in a run-down neighborhood in a town or a city, then rehabilitated and sold them. He plowed his profits into more modern and more lucrative ventures — especially timberlands and mills. He also bought a dozen daily newspapers in second-tier towns all over the South — Rome, Tuscaloosa, Houma, Mobile. He bought banks and utilities like a man playing monopoly. A few years into his career, as sort of a hobby, he snapped up historic plantation properties from East Texas to Virginia. He developed a whole island off the coast of Georgia, two more in the Gulf of Mexico. His wealth rose like a thermometer on an August day in the Black Belt. He was worth a billion dollars by the time he turned 45 years old, and he made several rankings of the world’s richest men… to his great annoyance. Mr. Wood came from the school of belief that a man’s worth should be the most private thing about him, nobody’s business but his own.

That year, when Mr. Wood turned 45, he met a figure skater.

He’d flown to Europe, Brussels, on a rare vacation — a working one. He purchased a Van Gogh and two Rembrandts for one of the houses he’d built for an oil baron in Texas, then gone to a skating competition as the special guest of the very rich epicurean who sold him the art works.

The two gentlemen had a long private talk in a suite high above the ice. Mr. Wood heard a number of things he’d never heard before.

The featured skater, Jeannette Benedictis, went by her performance name — Tatania. She was 15 years old. Vietnamese. An orphan of France’s bitter conflict in Southeast Asia, adopted by kindly bourgeoisie parents, raised in Paris.

Mr. Wood negotiated with Tatania’s parents to bring her to the United States on a skating tour. He refused to bring along her coach, a former Swiss Olympian who had developed the young girl’s uncanny natural talent since age five. Mr. Wood explained to the girl’s parents that he planned to hire “a real coach” — Dorothy Hamill’s, maybe — to replace her tired old one. Mr. Wood would make Tatania a star.

When Mr. Wood got to New York, he took Tatania on a long drive into the Adirondacks, headed, he told her, for Lake Placid, where they would meet her new coach. They chatted in a friendly, formal way — Tatania’s command of English proved excellent — and they stopped several times to watch an early October snow sift down through the brilliant sugar maples that climbed granite slopes.

Mr. Wood took Tatania to a tiny remote cabin with a kitchenette.

He strangled the young skater in that little kitchen space with his bare hands, squeezing so hard he heard her windpipe crack first, then the bones break in her tiny neck. During the strangulation, his muscular arms lifted the girl clear off the floor. Tatania’s toes swung without touching.

Mr. Wood then carved, cooked, and consumed his young charge. He ate every last morsel, preparing a series of lavish meals in solitude over a period of days. When the recipe called for meat, he had ample supply.

Mr. Wood wrote a letter to Tatania’s parents and told them she’d run away with a refrigerator repair man in New York City without even the courtesy of leaving him a note. He explained to them that the New York City police made promises to leave no stone unturned until they brought her back.

He scrawled another letter, this one to the epicurean in Paris, thanking him for his book of recipes and accepting his invitation to meet in Bangkok in December for a very fine meal with a few close friends.

The winter solstice would never be the same.